Wind Of Change
Gordon Matthewman's interests in hi-tech and his horn have found him in some of the most unlikely musical settings with his project Blow. Simon Trask blows another man's trumpet.
Brass band to big band, Sade to Shoom, trumpeter Gordon Matthewman has played his horn in many musical settings. Now he's experimenting with sampling and sequencing technology.
Back in the early '80s, a fledgling musical technology called sampling was setting the cat among the musical pigeons. Some saw it as a window onto new creative vistas, others saw it as a potential threat to their livelihood. The former perceived sampling as a way of gaining their sound, the latter as a way of losing theirs.
At the same time, the notion of people programming music on synths and sequencers, rather than playing it on guitars, bass and drums, hit the pop mainstream for the first time, and many musicians hated it - or rather, they hated the fact that kids who couldn't play an instrument between them were nonetheless having hit records. Sounds familiar? Yes, it was the beginning of a polarisation of attitudes towards technology which afflicted much of the '80s, with "non musicians" - invariably making dance music - in one corner and "real musicians" in the-other.
Not everyone was susceptible to such either/or thinking, however. One live performer who found himself very much at home in the world of dance music was a young trumpet player by the name of Gordon Matthewman. He made a name for himself in London's clubland during the late-'80s by playing live trumpet over the records being spun by the DJs in clubs like Delirium and Shoom. At the same time, he began gradually building up a hi-tech home studio which has come to include two rack-mount digital samplers, a number of drum machines (including the Roland classics) and what he refers to as "toy" keyboards in the form of the DX100 and CZ101.
Nowadays, working under the name Blow, Matthewman creates jazz-influenced funky instrumental dance tracks which mix live and "sampled live" trumpet, sax and guitar with sequenced keyboards, bass and drums to great effect. His fourth single, 'Cutter', was released last October on 10 Records, while a debut album, Cutter, which he has co-composed, programmed, engineered and mixed, has been in the can since last May, pressed up and waiting to go since last Autumn, and is now set for February release. From uptempo clubby tracks like 'Oh Yeah' and the title track, to the soulful 'Keep On' (the one vocal track on the album, featuring singer Gina Foster) to the bouncy uptempo go-go funk of 'Bridge & Tunnel' to the wonderfully mellow 'Watching The Girls...' (strongly influenced by the Floaters' classic 'Float On') to the firing 'Jazz '91' to the sublime 'Wish You Were Here' (I wish I was, too), it's an album which manages to be well varied and yet have a strong unifying identity. In part this comes from the distinctive, melodic compositional style of Matthewman and his brother Stuart (co-composer of six of the nine tracks on the album), in part from the brothers' distinctive trumpet and sax work which features throughout the album, and in part from the blend of live and sequenced feels which Matthewman has managed to achieve on the tracks - one of the most successful I've heard.
In fact, Blow began life back in mid '87 as a duo consisting of Matthewman and keyboard player Adam Routh.
"Right from the beginning we took it out live, we did gigs and everything - which was a real nuisance for him", Matthewman recalls as we sit in the offices of his record label. "I'd got my trumpet and he'd got all this equipment. I don't think many people realised that it was live. It was fun, we did it, but as far as doing it all the time, it was just too much hassle getting everything to work. At that time the technology wasn't reliable enough. For instance, if we did three songs, the sample memory wasn't there to have enough stuff, so we'd have to stop and load in more songs. With the technology now, it's easy."
Matthewman continued on his own, initially playing live trumpet over other people's records in the clubs but later progressing to playing over acetates of his own tracks which he'd give to the DJs to play. Far from being a fad, it's become an essential part of the way he works.
"I really enjoy live playing. For me that's the best thing", he says. "It's all very well being in your front room mixing something, but if you're playing in front of a crowd of people and they like it, that's a whole lot better.
"Recently I've been mixing stuff specially for live work. If you're doing something live and people are actually turning around and looking at what you're doing, the arrangement has to be more focussed for what you're doing, in order to get things across. So I'll mix a backing track during the day, and I've got a friend who'll cut an acetate, and I'll take it out the same night. That's the closest I can get to playing live without lugging all the machines out. I have thought about bringing stuff out but I'm not really convinced that it's worth it, because I'm doing something visual with the trumpet - if something visual is required - and the majority of people at a club aren't that interested in seeing little drum machines.
"Besides, part of the process for me is cutting acetates. Each time I've done a PA, I've cut an acetate, and apart from hearing my mix I can hear how well it gets cut. I learn about cutting records, what it involves, how much level you can put on an acetate - all that sort of thing. Part of the help that I had in recording the album was getting a perspective on mixing from doing acetates of some of the tracks. I've been mixing on NS10s, and you just can't hear low frequencies on them. A DJ friend of mine, Colin Faver, tried out some of the tracks on the big systems. When you hear your tracks mixed with other records and suddenly there's masses of bass or there's no bass, or there's no snare or mid-range in them, you can go back to your studio knowing that you've got to bring the mid-range up more. Stuff like that."
Matthewman has developed a much less formal approach to live playing than that required in traditional gigs. Instead of playing in front of the audience, he's just as likely to be playing in it.
"I've got a radio mic attached to my trumpet. I'll check out the sound with the DJ and then I'll go right in the crowd and stand next to people who are dancing", he explains. "To see people's faces when they hear a bit of trumpet on this track that they know, and they're thinking 'That's not usually there', and then they look at me playing... Nine times out of ten they have to stick their ear right in front of the trumpet so that they can really believe I'm doing it. It works, doing that sort of thing.
"Later on, when I've done that a bit, I'll go somewhere a bit more focussed and play a bit there. After that I'll get the hell out and let them get back to dancing, 'cos they tend to stop and listen when I'm up on stage. I've tried not going up on stage at all but if the promoter of the club has asked me to come and play, they're so used to seeing somebody going on stage and doing it, that I've found it's best if I do a bit of both."
So what sort of records does Matthewman find best for playing over?
"Most of the things that have really worked, I haven't got a clue what they were", he replies. "There's a few tracks that I'll know, but I actually prefer not knowing what they are, because it's a lot more fun that way. Sometimes it just seems to click. 'Cos it's not the sort of thing you do all night.
"With the rave stuff, there's so little of it that's got chords or anything melodic or atmospheric. Whenever there's something that sounds like it's got room in it, I'll come in and play over that open space. The best tracks recently have been the ones where there's a break and the drums drop out; there's a few of those around, where they just have some atmospheric sound coming in."
So could Matthewman elaborate on his approach to playing over records? Is it the more traditional concept of soloing over something, or is it more a concept of adding something to the arrangement?
"Well, there's different ways", he replies. "Some of the best times it's worked is where you've got a track that's got, say, a two-bar rhythmic pattern to it, and you'll get a rimshot playing for the first bar and then dropping out for the second bar, and I'll play something melodic that will have the same rhythm as the rimshot. Then people can relate through the rhythm to what I'm doing. Also, if it's a good snare pattern I'll figure out the pattern and then work out a tune that fits with it, or maybe just pick out the accents in the pattern and fit a tune to them. I'll use that until I get bored with it! Then hopefully there'll be a break where I can play something a bit more flowing, so you get a contrast between the rhythmic and the melodic."
Despite his professed reluctance to use technology live on stage, Matthewman's urge to bring together his trumpet playing and his MIDI instruments could get the better of him. He's been working at home with a Roland CP40 pitch-to-MIDI Converter, and is well pleased with it.
"It actually responds pretty fast", he comments. "It's only a little thing, I think it cost about 120 quid; I couldn't believe it was so cheap. The trouble is that the spillage on the mic live sets off the tracker, so I've got to find a way of really gating it down so that it only opens up when I'm playing.
"Another problem with using it live is that, if I'm tuning to a track, it's only got a tolerance of maybe about two percent either way, so I'll probably only be able to use it on my own tracks. You can put it on complete freedom mode, where whatever pitch it is it pitchbends to it, something like that, but it slows the tracking down too much. But that's something I really hope to try out, 'cos I think it would freak people out if they saw me playing trumpet and it sounded like a piano or a violin!"
"There's a certain feel if you use drum machines and program on them that you don't get if you program everything on the computer."
Talking about tuning, it must be something of a problem for Matthewman in a situation where records are varispeeded on Technics SL1200s to sync the bpms or simply to bump up the tempo.
"Yeah, a lot of the time it's impossible to get the tuning right", he confirms. "With the trumpet you can tune quite a long way, but the harmonics will go out if you tune too far. It just sounds nightmarish; that's another thing that restricts when I can play. With my acetates, on the label all it's got written is '+1%', which the DJ seems to relate to. You've got about a tone difference on the 1200, so if he puts it on +8 it's like 'Oh no, I can't play it all a semitone or a tone up, it's in some awful key'."
It would make sense for Matthewman to bypass the problems of trumpet tuning and play through pitch-to-MIDI converters with something like a Yamaha WX7 or an Akai EVI MIDI wind controller. It turns out he already has a WX7.
"I did use it once live", he reveals, "but people couldn't really relate to it. It was like 'What's that liquorice stick?', whereas it seems with the trumpet they can relate to it a bit more. I did use it once for triggering loops, 'cos it's got a key hold function on it, you can play one note and then hold it. So I had a loop going on the key hold, and then played over the top of the loop. People stared at me as if I was mad!"
Did the WX7 get used much on the album?
"I think I used it for a little vibes solo or something like that, but not much", he replies.
So has he gone as far as he's going to go with it?
"I hope to use it more; it's sitting ready on input three of Unitor", he replies. "But the problem with it for me is that trumpet embouchure is quite a delicate thing, and you've really got to practise every day to keep your tone and co-ordination together. Whenever I play the WX7 it seems to affect my lip, so for a couple of days after I've played it, it affects my sound on the trumpet.
"That's the main reason I haven't really gone into practising it and using it a lot. But I should do. I started off on recorder, and the fingering's identical. Runs are a lot easier on it than they are on the trumpet - and for octave leaps, you've got seven octaves at your thumb!
"The best thing for me when I use the WX7 is the fact that you have to breathe. It makes the line that you're playing sound more natural. If you're playing on the keyboard you can just keep going and going, whereas if you're doing a trumpet or a sax solo with the WX7 you actually have to stop for breath - unless you're doing circular breathing, of course - and it makes the solo sound natural, 'cos people are so used to hearing trumpet and sax parts with gaps in them. It's pretty good for playing rhythmic parts as well, again because of the breathing thing. I really should use it more."
For someone who has involved himself with the very music and technology which is still anathema to a lot of traditional players, Matthewman has a very traditional musical background. He started playing the trumpet when he was ten, and as a teenager progressed to playing in brass bands and big bands in his native Hull.
"There was a different band every night of the week that you could join", he recalls. "I enjoyed the jazz big band the most. The band leader would bring in all the new arrangements - like Maynard Ferguson was one of the big band people at the time - and we played these arrangements. Or tried to."
Even brass bands contributed to his experience...
"I wasn't fond of going 'oom-cha oom-cha oom-cha'", Matthewman replies, "But it was really good for sight-reading and the discipline of it. But I knew that sort of thing wasn't for me."
When it comes to timing, playing in a brass band isn't so far removed from using sequencers: "In a brass band they're aiming for a perfect, tight sound. Before sequencers were thought of, if it was a good band it had a tight sound, almost like a quantised sort of thing. They're very up on the demisemiquavers and all that business - but with a feel, like you have on sequencers now, where you design your own feel and get a tightness around that feel. Music's always been striving for that."
So has Matthewman always been a professional musician?
"I've never had a 'proper' job, as my uncle would call it - 'Get yourself a proper job, lad!'", he muses. "So yeah, professionally means you get paid for it, I suppose, so ever since I left school, really."
In the early '80s he landed himself a job playing on a cruise-liner in the Caribbean for two consecutive winters - a move which was to prove very important for his future musical direction.
"I was in a place where the radio was really good: Puerto Rico", he recalls. "They'd just got into doing mixing and I'd go to clubs and watch the DJs doing edits and all that sort of thing - which nobody was doing in London at that time. Not to my knowledge, anyway. So I just started getting into it, and I'd spend all my time doing little tape edits, trying to be as good as these DJs in Puerto Rico, and the guys on the radio. They were mad for electro, 'cos the Latin-influenced electro like the Shannon stuff was massive, they loved it. All the young people had these low-ride cars with massive sound systems in them. It was crazy but I loved it!"
When someone onboard the ship suggested that Matthewman should try playing his trumpet over the mixes he'd been editing together, he laughed - but the germ of an idea had been sown in his mind.
Through his brother Stuart, who played sax and guitar in the group Sade, he got the call to play trumpet on their debut album Diamond Life ('84). The following year he became part of the horn section for the group's first UK and world tour. It was during this time that he began to get interested in recording his own music. Subsequently he started working on some tracks ("but very vaguely"). It was a visit to the legendary Paradise Garage club in New York in early '87 which clarified his musical direction for him.
"In a brass band they're aiming for a perfect, tight sound... if it was a good band it had a tight sound, almost like a quantised sort of thing."
"I know the Garage is known for its soulful vocals", he says, "but the night I went it was all the electronic stuff, hardly any vocals - it must have been B-sides of house tracks. It all sounded so different to me. But it just made me think 'I'm doing the right thing here, this is sounding like what I was hearing before I heard it!'"
Sort of a justification, then. Later in the year Blow started up, and we're back to where we picked it up.
Matthewman's first hi-tech purchase was a Korg SDD2000 sampling digital delay, which he still uses today ("It's really noisy, but it's got character to it"). The SDD2000 was followed by a Roland S330 sampler and a Yamaha DX100 synth.
"The DX100 was my master keyboard", he recalls wtth amusement. "But 'cos its keyboard wasn't velocity sensitive, if I wanted any velocity values other than 64 in a sequence I had to write them to individual notes in the sequencer. People thought it was very funny when I turned up at a studio with this little keyboard under my arm.
"I think the next thing I got was a CZ101. It was all toy keyboards at first, until I got the majestic M1R. My studio's been built up gradually. I've done a gig playing trumpet, and with the money I've got from doing that I've gone out and bought another bit of gear."
Nowadays his main keyboard is a Yamaha DX11.
"It's not particularly happening", he admits. "If a really good keyboard player saw it he'd probably say 'See ya, mate' and walk out! But I quite like it, actually, although it's a bit noisy. For bass sounds I usually mix the DX11 and the S330 together, 'cos whereas the 330's like a punchy bass you get the ringing or the sustaining warmth of the bass from the DX11."
Far from lying around forgotten in this age of Notators and S1000s, Matthewman's collection of drum machines old and (relatively) new sees regular use. For him, it's the feel factor which makes the original machines unique.
"There's a certain feel if you use drum machines and program on them that you don't get if you program everything on the computer", he opines. "What I do quite a lot of the time is sync up the drum machines to the computer and then program on the individual machines; that way they'll be doing their own thing and also making life easier for the computer. The only drum machine I'll sequence from Notator is the HR16B, because it's so tight over MIDI."
Along with the HR16B ("very good for top-end things like cabasas and hi-hats") and an Oberheim DX, Matthewman's collection of drum machines includes a strong complement of Rolands: TR808 (Groove MIDI-retrofitted), 909, 707, 727 and R8.
"I had to get the full Roland set", he insists with a grin. "There's an appeal to doing it. A lot of people just have to have them all."
But for Matthewman there's more to wanting the original machines than a severe case of technolust.
"Anybody can get TR909 samples now, but the feel of the 909, the groove that's on it, you can only get that by programming the actual "drum machine", he insists. "The same with the 808 - it's got an atmosphere and a groove all its own. I'd say it's worth spending the money to get the original machines.
"If you really zero in on what the drum machines do, the 707 seems to push the beat and make it bright and poppy somehow, while the 909 makes it dirty. I think the 909 as it clocks to MIDI sync is slightly late, and the 707's slightly ahead of the beat, and the 808 is slightly ahead but it's got certain drums that are behind, which makes it even weirder. It's all very subtle, but each machine's got its own character. There's different sounds on each drum machine that really complement each other, so, if you pick the right sounds on all the drum machines, they really make sense when you use them together."
Matthewman professes that he'd like to achieve a kind of fluidity in the feel of the music which he finds hard to get with the click track of the sequencer controlling everything.
"Some of the tracks I like best - like Marvin Gaye tracks - you get this great groove happening, but it kind of moves around the tempo, though in a really natural way, and everyone follows that fluctuation", he points out. "It's not a wrong thing, it's just part of the feel, to be able to build it up again, that sort of thing - which you lose if you play to a click track."
The album tracks are, as mentioned earlier, a combination of live parts played to multitrack tape (trumpet, saxophone and guitar) and sequenced parts (drum machines, synths and sample loops). That the two are smoothly blended rather than set off against one another is partly because Matthewman has sampled off the multitrack in order to give some of the live playing an insistent looped feel.
"My brother would have one track of guitar fills but he'd also do a rhythm track. Going through it I'd find parts that sounded really tight and funky, sample those and then bring them up as a loop", he recalls. "Then it's a lot easier arrangement-wise. I'll take two or three similar guitar samples and once you think it's a loop I'll feed in another sample that's similar, it just sounds like it's playing slightly differently. I've done that quite a lot."
With the album taking so long to come out, Matthewman's experiments with his acetates have been, as he puts it, keeping him sane. But is there a danger that he'll find himself wanting to rework the album before it even comes out?
"I really want the album to be as it is for a time without remixing things too much", Matthewman states. "But while I was in New York recently there was a DJ there who had got hold of a copy of the album, and he was playing 'Jazz '91' in amongst all these hip hop tracks, and it worked, it sounded fine and it kept the floor. So I've got ideas for remixing that, just from hearing it that time. It really makes a difference hearing it in a club, 'cos then you know what it needs."
Finally, being so into live playing, has he considered going out with a live band once the album's out?
"If people are buying the record and they really like certain tracks, then it warrants going out with a band, otherwise it's kind of a false move", comes the reply. "But yeah, that would be so good. That's what it's all about - playing with other musicians, the dynamics that you get from musicians reacting to one another. I think songs come to life when you get people interpreting the basics that are there on the album. Playing live just inspires you a lot more."
Interview by Simon Trask
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